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Contractual sex and neoliberal masochism


The LA Review of Books has a fascinating essay by Walter Benn Michaels about the characteristically neoliberal form of “contractual” sex exhibited in Fifty Shades of Grey (both the movie and the book). Michaels compares the S&M relationship between Christian, a corporate titan, and Ana, his nubile employee, to the contractual relationship that Uber has with its drivers. In the course of the essay, Michaels also discusses Dominique Strauss Kahn, Ludwig von Mises, and David Graeber. Here’s an excerpt:

What is standardly described as Fifty Shades’s contribution to the mainstreaming of the S&M lifestyle could more plausibly be described as its participation in what a writer in the Harvard Business Review calls the new “work style” that, as she enthusiastically observes, “more and more people are choosing,” the “contingent work style.” The essence of the contingent work style is that contingent workers are understood not as employees but as “independent contracting parties.” Indeed, the licensing agreement that Uber (perhaps the paradigmatic practitioner of the contingent work style) requires all its drivers to sign explicitly specifies that “no employment contract is created between [the Dominant and the Submissive]”— I mean, “between Uber and the Drivers.” The point of this stipulation for contingent workers is that, as independent contractors, they have “the freedom to be their own boss.” The point for Uber is that because it’s employing bosses not workers, it doesn’t have to pay benefits like social security or workers’ compensation (not to mention the fact that bosses can’t form unions).

In other words, the reason neoliberal masochism won’t just let contract go is because it’s only employment contracts that it really wants to get rid of. After all, by making the neoliberal denial of the difference between employer and employee literal (i.e., by thinking of us all as investing our human capital), real capital saves itself a lot of money. Or, as the lead attorney in the class action suit recently filed against Uber says, “By not classifying its drivers as employees, Uber is shifting the expenses of running a business to its workers.” In Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s not until Christian gives Ana the company she’s been working for as a wedding present that she can fully experience the transcendence of the liberal relation between employer and employee by the neoliberal relationship between independent contractors. (The company is even called “Independent Publishing”!) But Uber drivers can get that same glow just by signing the licensing agreement. And the rest of us can get a version of it every time we rate and are rated by our drivers, hoping for a match as good as Ana’s and Christian’s (and dreading one as bad as Dakota Johnson’s and Jamie Dornan’s).

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